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My German friends at Ohio State laughed to hear that I had ancestors named Biedermann. To be a “Biedermann,” in German slang, is to be someone narrow and strict, someone who merely follows orders.

That joshing came to mind while reading Rick Anderson’s recent article, in which he divides fellow librarians into two groups: those who lean towards being dutiful “soldiers” and those who lean towards being willful “revolutionaries.” While weighing the relative merits of the two groups, Anderson lays a heavy thumb on the “soldiers” side of the scale. My thumb lays on the other side.

(Where Anderson applies his thumb hardest is with the bullet points in the “Soldiers and revolutionaries” section, which are practically parody. So be it, though…as we’ll soon see, what Anderson can do, I can do, too…)

Rather than use Anderson’s “soldiers” and “revolutionaries,” let’s honor the recent Fourth of July by describing the two sides as, respectively, “Tories” and “Patriots.”

Those with a predominantly Tory mindset:

  • accept the status quo
  • go along to get along
  • reliably defer to authority
  • do the work that someone else puts in front of them

Those with a predominantly Patriot mindset:

  • ask searching questions
  • challenge received assumptions
  • work independently when needed
  • build far-flung collegial relationships
  • try new things to meet new needs

To paraphrase Anderson, hardly any individual librarian can be characterized as either a pure Tory or a pure Patriot. But which mindset would you want characterizing your library in these days of transformational change?

As Anderson notes, “tightening budgets increasingly force us to choose between worthy programs and projects.” Publishers have steadily cut into library purchasing power for decades by raising their subscription rates far faster than the rate of inflation.

The traditional Tory passivity of all too many librarians–the Biedermann mentality that meekly accepts the status quo–serves students and faculty unusually poorly as we struggle with an unaffordable system of scholarly communication created by publishers for publishers.

How, then, can libraries break out of that dead-end system? They can do it by drawing on Patriot courage, leadership, and innovation.

Anderson ends his article with a heavy-handed reminder that libraries are “ethically obligated to support the mission” of their funders. Anderson implies that only “revolutionaries” will find themselves in that sort of ethical difficulty, and, as a result, risk ending up as unemployed “freelancers.”

Charming.

Back in the real world…

When a librarian timidly does what he’s always done because he lacks the courage or imagination to change, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

When a librarian just wants to write the same (if ever-larger) checks to the same publishers in the same process because that’s his comfort zone, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

Are those Tory-style lapses in meeting ethical obligations so improbable that they were not even worth mentioning?

And if they’re not so improbable, why didn’t Anderson bother to mention them?

That imbalance is the fatal weakness of his article.

Maybe he would have benefited from having some Biedermann ancestors.

When people had to see

“Before cameras, educated, well-to-do travelers had learned to sketch so that they could draw what they saw on their trips, in the same way that, before phonograph recordings, bourgeois families listened to music by making it themselves at home, playing the piano and singing in the parlor. Cameras made the task of keeping a record of people and things simpler and more widely available, and in the process reduced the care and intensity with which people needed to look at the things they wanted to remember well, because pressing a button required less concentration and effort than composing a precise and comely drawing.

–Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece : On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (New York : Penguin, 2005), pg. 33.

The importance of context

From an article in the May 24, 2014 issue of The Economist about how racial minorities in the United States live in places where they breathe dirtier air:

[…]The study does not address why [race matters more than income in determining whether someone will live exposed to dirtier air]. A possible explanation is that many Americans prefer to live among people who look like themselves. For example, well-off urban blacks may be choosing to live in traditionally black neighbourhoods, despite the worse air and the fact that they could afford to live elsewhere.

A slight re-write of the paragraph above:

[…]The study does not address why [race matters more than income in determining whether someone will live exposed to dirtier air]. A possible explanation is that people prefer to live where they will be treated like fellow human beings. For example, well-off urban blacks may be choosing to live in traditionally black neighbourhoods, despite the worse air and the fact that they could afford to live elsewhere.

The latter paragraph tells a different story; a story readers of The Economist need to hear.

Walls, cities, and barbarians

“The premodern city was a walled space protected by defensive installations. Even when walls no longer fulfilled a military purpose, they continued to operate as customs boundaries. When they lost that function too, they served as symbolic markers of space. Whole empires expressed their superiority over the ‘barbarians’ around them by the sheer force of their technological, organizational, and financial capacity to build walls. Barbarians might destroy walls–they could not put them up. Walls and gates separate city from country, compression from dispersion. […] [S]ince the 1980s Americans have enjoyed putting up new walls: the ‘gating’ of prosperous apartment complexes and city districts, combined with protective walls, tall fences, and watchtowers, is still a growing trend. This colonial practice spreads whenever income differences and socially segregated housing reach a certain threshold. It has become common even in the big cities of (still officially socialist) China.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pg. 297.

The Scots were right to vote “no” on the referendum for independence because the referendum was misleading. However Scotland voted this week, and whatever the Scots may wish, they will not be independent of England. A vote cannot widen the River Tweed. A vote cannot reduce England to having the same population and wealth as Scotland. The irresistible gravity of geography keeps Scotland in England’s orbit. Breaking away is not an option. The only option is how the terms of the relationship are defined. And Scotland will have more leverage with England in a union in which the Labour Party depends on Scottish votes than as an independent country.

Though the Scots have decided to remain in the United Kingdom, the closeness of the referendum and the panic that gripped the UK government during the last week before voting suggest a parallel between the fate of the Habsburg Empire after its great Napoleonic War struggle and the fate of the United Kingdom after World War II. Both seemed healthy and stable (though considerably weakened) for two generations. Then the cracks started to appear, with the Habsburgs having to agree to the Dual Monarchy in 1867 and the UK having to grant devolution in 1999. And now the UK is experiencing a great ferment over separatism, just as the Habsburgs did during the late 19th century.

Could the British Isles of the 21st century resemble the Central Europe of the 20th century? Could we see the United Kingdom break into five countries: Southern England, Northern England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, and Northern Ireland? Could Prince George end up as George Windsor, a latter-day Otto von Habsburg, combining prestige and humility to become an honored statesman within his family’s former realm?

Literature versus composition

“[T]he culture of [collegiate] English departments [is] structured by an invidious binary opposition between writing teachers and literary scholars that could not be improved by tinkering. Because the profession was organized by–indeed, founded upon–this distinction, it could be undone only by a deconstructive process striking at its roots. […] English departments need composition as the ‘other’ of literature in order to function as they have functioned. The useful, the practical, and even the intelligible were relegated to composition so that literature could stand as the complex embodiment of cultural ideals, based upon texts in which those ideals were so deeply embedded as to require the deep analyses of a trained scholar. Teachers of literature became the priests and theologians of English, while teachers of composition were the nuns, barred from the priesthood, doing the shitwork of the field.”

–Robert Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English : Reconstructing English as a Discipline (New Haven, Conn. : Yale University, 1998), pgs. 35-36.

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